poem index

About this poet

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was the second son of Walter Whitman, a housebuilder, and Louisa Van Velsor. The family, which consisted of nine children, lived in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 1830s.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began to learn the printer's trade, and fell in love with the written word. Largely self-taught, he read voraciously, becoming acquainted with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Whitman worked as a printer in New York City until a devastating fire in the printing district demolished the industry. In 1836, at the age of seventeen, he began his career as teacher in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism as a full-time career.

He founded a weekly newspaper, Long-Islander, and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman left the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. It was in New Orleans that he experienced firsthand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city. On his return to Brooklyn in the fall of 1848, he founded a "free soil" newspaper, the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to develop the unique style of poetry that later so astonished Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which consisted of twelve untitled poems and a preface. He published the volume himself, and sent a copy to Emerson in July of 1855. Whitman released a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising the first edition, and a long open letter by Whitman in response. During his lifetime, Whitman continued to refine the volume, publishing several more editions of the book. Noted Whitman scholar, M. Jimmie Killingsworth writes that "the 'merge,' as Whitman conceived it, is the tendency of the individual self to overcome moral, psychological, and political boundaries. Thematically and poetically, the notion dominates the three major poems of 1855: 'I Sing the Body Electric,' 'The Sleepers,' and 'Song of Myself,' all of which were 'merged' in the first edition under the single title Leaves of Grass but were demarcated by clear breaks in the text and the repetition of the title."

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a "purged" and "cleansed" life. He worked as a freelance journalist and visited the wounded at New York City–area hospitals. He then traveled to Washington, D. C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war.

Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington, Whitman decided to stay and work in the hospitals and stayed in the city for eleven years. He took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered that Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive. Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman struggled to support himself through most of his life. In Washington, he lived on a clerk's salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He had also been sending money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him "purses" of money so that he could get by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he had come to visit his dying mother at his brother's house. However, after suffering a stroke, Whitman found it impossible to return to Washington. He stayed with his brother until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood) gave Whitman enough money to buy a home in Camden.

In the simple two-story clapboard house, Whitman spent his declining years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891). After his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was buried in a tomb he designed and had built on a lot in Harleigh Cemetery.

Along with Emily Dickinson, he is considered one of America's most important poets.



Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Leaves of Grass (David McKay, 1891)
Good-Bye, My Fancy (David McKay, 1891)
Leaves of Grass (James R. Osgood, 1881)
Passage to India (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (J.S. Redfield, 1870)
Leaves of Grass (William E. Chapin, 1867)
Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Sequel to Drum Taps (William E. Chapin, 1865)
Leaves of Grass (Thayer & Eldridge, 1860)
Leaves of Grass (Fowler & Wells, 1856)
Leaves of Grass (self-published, 1855)

Prose

Complete Prose Works (David McKay, 1892)
November Boughs (David McKay, 1888)
Memoranda During the War (self-published, 1875)
Democratic Vistas (David McKay, 1871)
Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate (New World, 1842)
 


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

A Woman Waits for Me

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892
A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of
   the right man were lacking.

Sex contains all, bodies, souls, 
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the
   seminal milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves,
   beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow'd persons of the
   earth,
These are contain'd in sex as parts of itself and justifications
   of itself.
   
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the
   deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.

Now I will dismiss myself from impassive women, 
I will go stay with her who waits for me, and with those
   women that are warm-blooded sufficient for me,
I see that they understand me and do not deny me,
I see that they are worthy of me, I will be the robust
   husband of those women.
   
They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tann'd in the face by shining suns and blowing 
   winds, 
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, 
   strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves,
They are ultimate in their own right--they are calm, clear,
   well-possess'd of themselves.
   
I draw you close to me, you women,
I cannot let you go, I would do you good, 
I am for you, and you are for me, not only for our own
   sake, but for others' sakes,
Envelop'd in you sleep greater heroes and bards,
They refuse to awake at the touch of any man but me. 

It is I, you women, I make my way,
I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable, but I love you,
I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these
   States, I press with slow rude muscle,
I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long 
   accumulated within me. 
   
Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself, 
In you I wrap a thousand onward years, 
On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and
   America,
The drops I distil upon you shall grow fierce and athletic
   girls, new artists, musicians, and singers, 
The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn,
I shall demand perfect men and women out of my love-
   spendings,
I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and
   you interpenetrate now,
I shall count on the fruits of the gushing showers of them, as
   I count on the fruits of the gushing showers I give now,
I shall look for loving crops from the birth, life, death,
   immortality, I plant so lovingly now.
 

This poem is in the public domain.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Born on May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman is the author of Leaves of Grass and, along with Emily Dickinson, is considered one of the architects of a uniquely American poetic voice. 

by this poet

poem
As I walk these broad majestic days of peace,
(For the war, the struggle of blood finish'd, wherein, O terrific Ideal,
Against vast odds erewhile having gloriously won,
Now thou stridest on, yet perhaps in time toward denser wars,
Perhaps to engage in time in still more dreadful contests, dangers,
Longer
poem
I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city, 
Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, 
   unruly, musical, self-sufficient,
I see that the word of my city is that word from of old, 
Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays
poem
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
	hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
	is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
	green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer